Journal Issue: Children and Poverty Volume 7 Number 2 Summer/Fall 1997
If all Americans below the poverty line could be captured in a photographic portrait, the current picture would be different from that of two decades ago. More people would be crowded into the picture as a result of the absolute growth in the American population combined with a relatively high national poverty rate that has grown from a post-World War II low of 11% in 1973 to 14% in 1995.1,2 But the most visible difference in the portrait would be in the group's composition: fewer elderly, sick, or infirm persons would pose for the picture, reflecting in part successful government economic security measures that helped reduce the elderly poverty rate from 35% in 1960 to 11% in 1995.2 Replacing the elderly would be impoverished children.
The economic fortunes of children as a group have worsened over the past two and a half decades. Of the 38 million Americans living in poverty in 1994, some 15 million (more than 40%) were under 18 years old, and 6 million were preschoolers, under the age of 6.1,3 The poverty rate for children under 18 increased from 14% in 1973 to 21% in 1995; and the poverty rate for children under 6 climbed from 16% to 24% during this same period.2,4-6
The children in the picture would not reflect a random cross section of all children because poverty is unevenly shared. As discussed in the article by Betson and Michael in this journal issue, children from racial and ethnic minority groups, children living in single-parent families, children from large families, and children whose parents are high school dropouts are disproportionately poor. Differences in poverty by race, ethnicity, and number of parents are especially striking. In 1992, the poverty rates for African-American children (46%) and Latino children (40%) were two and one-half to three times the rate for white children (16%).2 Children living in mother-only families were more than five times more likely to be poor than were those living in two-parent families: 38% compared with 7%.7
Looking beyond the faces, the news would be even more disturbing. Children raised in poor families not only have less access to material resources—food, shelter, health care—but also less access to community resources—good schools, safe neighborhoods, adequate governmental services—than do children raised in families with adequate economic resources.
Photographs capture only a moment in time, but the effects of poverty are most severe when childhood poverty is long-term.8,9 Long-term childhood poverty has lasting consequences for children's development: growing up poor is associated with sizable cognitive deficits in early childhood and with large earnings and income deficits in adulthood.8,9 Moreover, childhood poverty, particularly long-term poverty, is more common for minority children, thereby reinforcing racial inequalities across generations.
This article reviews current research on the incidence and duration of childhood poverty and intergenerational poverty. To use the photoportrait metaphor, it examines which children appear in the poverty photograph, how long they stay, and whether they will appear as adults in later photographs. The article begins by presenting trends in the incidence of childhood poverty, in the demographic characteristics of children, and in labor market conditions, and by summarizing research that relates changes in children's demographic characteristics and in the economy to trends in childhood poverty. Next it explores the extent to which poverty persists throughout the childhood years. Then it discusses the trends in and correlates of long-term childhood poverty (race, family structure, parental schooling, neighborhood poverty). Finally, it estimates the extent to which poverty persists beyond childhood and then concludes with a summary of findings.